Wednesday, August 20, 2014

WTH! Crummy Execution at Ramen Koika

A jack of all trades,
Often a master of none;
No time to focus.

With great expectation, I eagerly waited for the opening of Ramen Koika, getting regular updates from my friends who work at St. Paul’s hospital.

The owners were taking their time with the space, appointing it with beautiful artwork and dark wood.  For me it was good sign, since it showed attention to detail.

There was a soft open and special deal to get the neighborhood acquainted with the place.  I waited so that they could work out the kinks from their food and service.

There was a small fuss made about the chefs manning the kitchen not being Japanese but I don’t put too much stock on ethnicity impacting a person’s ability to cook well.  To be honest, I often find it a lazy argument.  If you have passion for food, and take the time to hone and learn your craft, one can cook anything well.  Chefs Alex Tung and Alex Chen prove that. 

Also the last time I checked, Chef Gordon Ramsey is not French yet he can prepare world class French cuisine.  In short, if a chef serves something subpar, they just suck at cooking and focusing on the details to make a dish wonderful; it has nothing to do with their cultural background.

With this in mind, I and a few fellow food enthusiasts descended onto Koika.  Upon opening the menu I spotted some red flags.  Koika had a giant menu with 9 ramens and 2 different soups, chicken and pork (presumably tonkotsu).  I think the most concerning thing for me was the 2 soup broths.  It’s hard to tailor and simmer ONE soup that’s balanced yet intensely flavourful but to try to do two is very ambitious.

I went with the fusion King Ramen served with their pork hard boiled broth, found in the Smoky Wok Cuisine section of the menu.  I call it fusion because stir frying the toppings in a wok is decidedly a Chinese technique which can lead very tasty results. 

Unfortunately the wok created smokiness or “Wok Hei” was very strong and overwhelming.  Coupled with a weak one note pork broth that couldn’t match the intensity of the "Wok Hei", my King Ramen was too monotone and dull in taste even with all the ingredients served.  Adding to the problem was the poor execution of the noodles.  They didn’t have any kansui taste, were too much like Chinese noodles and were soft despite ordering the “hard” option.

The overall consensus at the table was the ramens served at Ramen Koika were not up to par.  Overall, all the various dishes ordered had similar execution issues I experienced.  The soup was bland and didn’t have a concentrated flavor one would expect from a well prepared broth.  The noodles were not prepared as ordered, arriving soft without a chewy texture.  

However the home made gyozas, verified by the distinct ridging displayed on each dumpling, were tasty.

Fast forward a few weeks, I was reading up on ramen when I came across the Champon Ramen from the coastal city of Nagasaki.  This unique style of ramen is old school, like late 1800s, fusion of Chinese and Japanese techniques.  Created by a Chinese shop owner, he fried up pork and vegetables, and placed them on top of a bowl of noodles he had cooked directly in the broth.  

Over the years, seafood was added to this Sino-Japanese concoction evolving into a hallmark dish for the Japanese port city.

Ring any bells?  It did for me and I immediately went onto the Ramen Koika website.  There it was, Champon Ramen.  As far as I was aware, this Davie street ramenya is the only one serving this specialty in the city.

I was actually hopeful given my initial experience at Ramen Koika.  Factoring in that some time had passed enabling the kitchen staff to refine their execution, I thought, "Perhaps, they could hit this out of the park and create a great version of this seafood ramen".

Well my second visit yielded mixed results.  First the improvements, the service was much more friendly and attentive.  The “Wok Hei” was dialed back significantly to a much more balanced level.  The noodles were tastier and took on the flavor of the soup, so perhaps per tradition the staff is cooking the noodles directly in the broth?

However, they were still past al dente even though I ordered hard.  The soup had a bit more character as some of the fried peppers and starch from the noodles imparted their flavor to the liquid.  Unfortunately, the soup was still quite one dimensional and not very impactful.

The biggest issue was the seafood.  The mussels were bland and gritty.  While eating the Champon ramen, I got the occasional mouthful that had a jarring sandiness to them.  I’m not sure if it came from the scallops or the mussels but it didn’t create an enjoyable experience.  

The prawns were cooked well except they had their shells on.  I would have liked it if the staff had peeled and de-veined the crustaceans to help make the dish easier and less messy to eat.

My follow-up visit was a bit better than my first but overall it was still very lackluster.  The kitchen is missing the mark on executing key components, the noodles and soup, well.  With the standard bearers of awesome ramen in Vancouver only a 15 minute stroll northwest of Koika, I think next time I want ramen I'm just going to keep on walking.

Ramen Koika on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Wow, You’ve got something there! – The atmosphere at the bar at Rondey’s in Yaletown (Yeah, there have great oysters & steamers too)

Rock 'n' Roll blaring,
Oyster slurping with the fam;
Good times at Rodney's.

When all else is equal, what makes one greater than the rest? I ponder this question as my cousin, She Clooney returned to Vancouver with her husband, Alaskan Brewed, in tow.  They wanted oysters and I suggested a place on Commercial Drive but was vetoed. 
All they wanted was to head back Rodney’s in Yaletown and sit at the bar.  They have done this on every trip to Vancouver since 2007, as long as time permitted it.

Perhaps it’s tradition but they argue Rodney’s is one of the favourite places for oysters.

So what makes Rodney’s better than all the other oyster places in the city for them when other places offer similar price, varieties of oysters and shucking skills?  For Clooney and Alaskan Brewed, it’s the human touch and the ambience created by the crew that man Rodney’s bar.

From the old school upbeat rock that’s piped into the restaurant to the playful interaction between the male staff, once seated you feel like you have been welcomed into a boys’ clubhouse.  

The staff warmly greet everyone who saddles up to the bar.  If you chat with them, you will get stories about motor cycles, inside jokes explained, tips about destinations in Vancouver to see (meant for Cloney & Alaskan Brewed) and of course expert advice on the oysters they are serving that day.

Now this fun atmosphere wouldn’t mean much if they didn’t have good food and oysters.  For our visit we order two dozen oysters and 2 steamers.

Out of the 10 oysters they had, we went with:
-Royal Miyagi
-Kaipara from New Zealand

Expertly shucked, the oysters were presented with 5 different sauces (ranging from mild to super spicy) and horseradish.  My cousins were in oyster heaven.  

For me I stuck with the vinaigrette (purple jar on the far left) and just a touch of horseradish.  I though the Kusshi had a nice sweet flavour with clean finish.  The royal miyagi had a creamier flavour.  The Kaipara and Shikgou were overwhelmingly briny and as I result I didn’t like them as much.

For our 2 steamers, we got mussels and clams.  Out of the 2 bi-valves I liked the mussels more as they were more plump and juicy.  I think Clooney may have asked the crew to toss some wine into the mussel steamer and not the clam one.  The leftover mussel juice was much more flavourful and complex. 

I would have been a happy camper if all I ate was the complimentary bread soaked in the buttery, salty and yet slightly acidic mussel juice at Rodney’s.  It was addictively tasty.
Although I didn’t grab a photo, another must order at Rodney’s is their Caesars.  They throw a little more worstershire sauce into their blend than most places and the drink is tastier for it.

Overall Rodney’s is a fun and relaxed place to have excellent oysters in the city.  If joking around with the staff is not your thing to do, then I would suggest asking to be seated at a table instead.  However, if you like to chat and tell stories then the bar Rodney is definitely the place for you. 

Rodney's Oyster House on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Wow, You’ve Got Something There! - Garlic Butter Chicken Wings & Bun Rieu from Hai Phong in Crosstown

Great Bun Rieu for Real!
An umami lover’s dream
In a roundabout.

There is a stereotype of Vietnamese restaurants in Vancouver.  They seem to be hole in the walls, where more effort is put into the food than the aesthetics of the place.  It’s all well and fine that the food tastes great but often I find myself not really wanting to linger at many of our city's good Vietnamese restaurants; a classic “eat and get the f*$&# out” scenario for me.

However, over the last 2 years I’ve noticed a few Vietnamese eateries buck the trend by having quality food and decor to match.

The new Hai Phong is located in the same roundabout as the Chinatown T&T.  It is a bright and cheery space, joining the new wave of Vietnamese eateries that strives to serve good food in a pleasant environment. 

I was lucky to duck out of work for lunch with fellow blogger, Dennis the foodie and his lovely wife, who is part Vietnamese.  It’s always a little different when you are in the company of an expert; you get insights and comments on small details that one would otherwise miss.

The nicely appointed Hai Phong in Crosstown is a branch of a restaurant of the same name, found on 1246 Kingsway.  However this new location has a pared down menu, due to its smaller electric kitchen, in comparison to the mother ship location.

Since I needed to head back to work and still be functional, I wanted something light but I simply couldn’t refuse the chicken wings on the menu.  As a result, our group shared an order of the Garlic Butter Chicken wings to kick off lunch.

These chicken wings were served with salt & pepper lemon sauce which acted as a nice tart counter balance.  The first flavour I detected when chewing the juicy meat from our appetizer was BUTTER.  It was followed by a burst of garlic and concluded with a hit of spiciness from the chillies.

These well seasoned chicken wings had great flavour and were crispy despite the thin crunchy coating; a potentially addictive must order. 

Before my lunch guests arrived, I had spotted a noodle I wanted to try but was concerned it would be heavy and induce a food coma.

I quickly asked my dining companions if Bun Rieu was light fare even though the menu lists thing like pig’s blood and feet.  Apparently it was and it would not hamper my return to the office.

I was excited to try this specialty noodle.  In addition to the pig’s blood and feet, the shrimp and crab paste noodle soup also includes shrimp and crab paste, Vietnamese ham, tofu puffs and vermicelli noodles.  All these ingredients would be steeped in a light tomato shrimp paste broth and served with shredded morning glory and banana flowers.

Upon it’s arrival my Bun Rieu emitted an aromatic shrimp paste smell.  It was chock full of ingredients.  However there was small concession on one of the ingredients.  Instead a piece of pig’s feet (complete with bone, tendons, and skin), a chunk of pork with skin (probably pork hock) was used instead.  It’s an adjustment that is understandable and wise given the demographics of those living in the tall towers that populate the Crosstown area.

My Bun Rieu was appetizing and delicious.  The soup was light and complex with a strong umami component from the shrimp paste that paired well with the slightly sour and refreshing tomato flavour. 

The globs of crab and shrimp paste had a strong concentrated flavour of sweet and savoury dried baby shrimp.  As noted by Dennis’s wife, this impactful taste is created by pulverizing dried baby shrimps in a food processor and combining it with crab to form the paste.

The presence of the uncommon shredded morning glory (green shreds in foreground) and banana blossoms (beige shreds in the upper left corner), indicates the eateries commitment to traditional Vietnamese fare.  These two plant shreds added an appreciated crunchy contrast to the softer vermicelli noodles.  They are to be added to the soup immediately to help them soften up.  This helpful tip (see what I mean about being in the company of an expert), provided by my fellow blogger’s significant other, among other astute observations, really made my lunch enjoyable.

In short the Bun Rieu is an umami lovers dream; simple, light but full of flavour.  In addition, I loved that we were given a complimentary dish of pickles to help cleanse our palates and stimulate our appetites.  A nice touch by the staff.

The great food at Hai Phong and the equally wonderful dining companions meant my lunch ended up being a two hour affair.  I can’t recall if I have ever stayed at a Vietnamese restaurant for more than 75 minutes let alone 120. 

Hai  Phong is a very welcomed addition to the Crosstown area and I will definitely return for a leisurely lunch and their fantastic Bun Rieu.

Hải Phong Vietnamese Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Wow, You’ve Got Something There! – Omurice From Marulilu Cafe

What is Omurice?
Omelette with a rice filling.
Tasty Yoshoku.

My friends know I love it when I discover uncommon food on my dining adventures.  One day Speedy texted me, “Have you had omurice?”  

I had no clue what that was and responded back.  I could sense Speedy was smiling and she replied with an explanation.

Omurice is part of the Yoshoku group of foods in the Japanese cuisine.  Introduced during Emperor Meiji’s reign (circa mid to late 1800s) when Japan began adopting foreign dishes, but adding a Japanese sensibility, to their cuisine.  Common Yoshoku foods include tonkatsu and korroke. 

Omurice is the Japanese’s take on the omelet.  Instead of filling like mushroom, ham, and cheese, the filling consists of either seasoned or plain rice.  It was traditionally served with a simple sauce like tomato or gravy.  Speedy’s mom made them for her as a snack and she ate it with ketchup.

I was intrigued but I was worried that the only place I could have this dish was at Speedy’s mom’s kitchen.  I had never seen the item on any Japanese restaurants I had visited.  Even the very traditional Aki’s did not have it on their regular menu.

Fortunately, Speedy’s not a tease and directed me towards Marulilu Café.
This quaint café is located at the very busy intersection of Cambie and Broadway in Vancouver.  The eatery offers a large list of coffee and teas, all day breakfast, sandwiches and a small list of Yoshoku foods.  I was not interested in their traditional café fare; I was here for omurice.

Marulilu does have a different set up that most eateries.  Claim an open table, staff will hand you a menu, and then once you’ve made up your mind head up to the front counter to order and pay.  As I perused the Yoskoku section of the menu, to my delight, not only did they have the exact dish that Speedy ate as a kid but additional variations of omurice.

I settled on the Omu Hayashi Rice with a mini salad.  The staff described it as an omurice with a plain rice filling served with a beef sauce. 

I did not have high expectation for this dish since it was so simple.  However, when the dish was set in front of me, I was actually surprised yet pleased with how it looked and the proportion that was given.  Despite being a simple dish, it was visually appealing with the glossy yellow omelet set against the sea of deep brown gravy.

When I cut into the omurice, exposing the bright white plain rice filling, I realized this was not a traditional offering.   The egg layer was not wrapped around the rice filling like an omelet but it was molded onto of the rice.

Perhaps a modern take?  Undeterred I scooped up the rice, egg and gravy and took a bite.  It was tasty and satisfying.  I couldn’t stop eating it. 

The egg was soft but it’s subtle flavour was overwhelmed by the sauce.

The gravy had a beefy umami taste and had scraps of beef in it but I not 100% sure it’s made from scratch.  It certainly doesn’t have the artificial taste of cafeteria gravy but it didn’t have the deep robust flavour of gravy made from pan drippings either. 

On Marulilu’s menu they do denote items that are premade/made from a package and I didn’t remember my dish having that explanation on it. 

Whatever the case, I enjoyed my meal.  It was very comforting and filling.  Too be honest, one would really have to be incompetent to ruin what essential was rice with gravy.

I look forward to trying the other types of omurice on the menu, especially the one variation with served with tomato sauce since tomatoes and eggs are another classic combo (think about it scramble eggs & ketchup, yum).

I'm also very interested in trying their curry tonkatsu as a neighbouring table had ordered it and it looked fantastic.  I definitely will be returning to Marulilu café for their Yoshoku food.
Marulilu Cafe on Urbanspoon

Friday, July 11, 2014

Wow, You’ve Got Something There! – Pork Belly Cha-Su from Taishoken

Porkbelly cha-Su,
You're sunshine on cloudy day.
Yum at Taishoken.

As a ramen shop, when you can elevate the flavour and execution of your Cha-su or protein, people in Vancouver will buzz about you.

Santouka’s toroniku and Marutama’s marinated egg helped create a buzz that lifted these two into the top tier of ramen purveyors in the city.

I think newly open Taishoken, near the corner of Abbott and Pender, can do the same with its pork belly cha-su.

Taishoken is a Japanese based chain that claims to have invented the Tsuke-Men, a.k.a. dipping ramen. When I arrived at this modest size eatery, they were not ready to offer their Tsuke-Men yet. 

Although disappointed, even by having the special shio ramen I got good sense how the Tsuke-Men will go.  
My special shio ramen came with a whole marinated egg, 4 slices of pork belly cha-su, seaweed and nori.  

The difference between regular and special is the special comes with an egg and I think 2 more slices of meat.  For all ramen on the menu, you get a choice between pork belly cha-su and pork shoulder cha-su (for you health conscious types).

Overall, the portion of noodle is on the smaller side but in line with other top ramen shops like Santouka.

The noodles had a nice chewy consistency.  The egg was subpar; not very flavourful and past soft boiled but not reaching green rimmed hard-boiled.  As a result, it was a little chalky for my liking.

The Pork Belly cha-su on the other hand was phenomenal!  Each slice had tender pork alternating between succulent layers fat.  The cut of meat was seasoned well with the top and bottom layer having an extra kick of soya sauce flavor.  This cha-su is a winner.

Much like Marutama, what will divide ramen aficionados is the soup.  It’s quite syrupy for a ramen soup stock.  It’s not as thick as gravy but reminds me of a demi glaze; easily coating my heavy ceramic soup spoon and has a similar sheen.  

I actually thought it was neat to see two tones of colour emerge when I swirled my spoon in the soup and the green onion garnish suspended in the liquid, instead of sinking to the bottom or floating on top. 

The flavor of the soup is complex and rich derived from the use of both chicken and pork meat.  It has a strong umami taste, with a bit of a cartilage/tendon/sinew aftertaste.  The flavor of the soup is good but not unique.  I feel it tastes similar to Jinya’s rendition.  

For some, the thicker consistency of the soup will be off putting.  However, I enjoyed it and saw how Taishoken's soup would be a strong foundation for their Tsuke-Men offering.  

With it's rich soup and fatty pork belly cha-su, I felt the size of the my shio ramen was perfectly satisfying, without causing indigestion and general lethargy.

A few days later I returned to try an unusual ramen I had spotted on the menu: the Tomato Ramen. 

The bright red concoction is inspired by Italy.  The regular version has a tomato soup stock, ramen noodles, raw white onions, dry Italian seasonings, Parmesan cheese and your choice of cha-su.  

For the sake of comparison I went with the Pork Shoulder cha-su.  Although seasoned well, it definitely had a much more intense pork flavor in contrast to the pork belly cha-su.  The meat was also much tougher but like I said if you’re health conscious it’s not a bad way to go.  However my preference is definitely the pork belly cha-su.

For the soup, I think they simply added canned diced tomatos to their regular chicken and pork stock.  As a result, the soup for the Tomato Ramen was not as syrupy.  I actually really like the red soup, as the sharp tangy tomato flavor helped mask the cartilage/tendon/sinew aftertaste.

Another component that work was the flavor of the cheese.  It added another layer of umami to the dish.  I wish they had dispersed the cheese a little more evenly so that more bites of noodles would have cheese in it.  Unfortunately they only clumped a small pile in one area and the cheese ended up melting onto my spoon as I tried to spread it around.

In contrast, the raw onions and dry Italian season were a little less successful.  I didn’t enjoy having intense onion and oregano flavor randomly and boldly inserting themselves into my bites of food.  This was so off putting that I probably would not order the Tomato Ramen again. 

However I would consider asking them to substitute the tomato soup for the syrupy pork and chicken stock in their other regular ramen from time to time.

I would definitely return frequently to Taishoken for the delicious and wonderful pork belly cha-su.  I’m also excited to try their Tsuke-Men on my next visit, as it was available and on the regular menu on my second visit.

Taishoken Ramen 大勝軒 on Urbanspoon